Once a Britain, Always an American:The Transformation of Benjamin FranklinMarcus Jeffrey Byrd Dr. Keith Pacholl HIST-4452 The American Revolution
Ben Franklin is the least likely of the Founding Fathers to be involved in the Revolutionary activity. He is the oldest of the men and had already established himself as a prominent figure in both American and English society. What is it that causes this once loyal Briton, to become that which is always associated with American?
Benjamin Franklin is the icon of American ideals. He is picturesque of what is known as the "American dream". He was born to a Boston man of little importance or historical recognition, yet through hard work and perseverance, Franklin rises up to be a noble statesmen, world renown scientist, and industrial titan. Franklin is the archetype of the self-made-man. He is a symbol of what America has become and strives to be, however for the majority of Franklin's life he was not American. Born in 1706, the first seventy years of his life America did not exist at all. For the majority of his life he was very much loyal to the crown of England and in fact strived for his beloved colony of Pennsylvania to become owned by the British government rather than a proprietary colony.i It is illogical for a man who was an avid loyalist for the majority of his life, and some say never fully committed to the American Cause, to be the symbol of America. Historian Gordon Wood explains that Ben Franklin is the least likely of the Founding Fathers to be involved in the Revolutionary activity. He is the oldest of the men and had already established himself as a prominent figure in both American and English society.ii What is it that causes this once loyal Briton, to become that which is always associated with American? In 1754 Benjamin Franklin outlined the points of his Albany Plan. The points included his short hints of a unified continent in America governed by a Grand Council, however Franklin was merely suggesting that unification would support the colonies interests but more important it would create a stronger Britain. Franklin was an passionate loyalist to the British throne. It is often unimaginable to think of Franklin in any context other than American yet until 1776 or somewhere in the revolutionary period Franklin was still a proud Britain. Then after the revolution was complete, Franklin spent a majority of his remaining years overseas in Britain
and France. In the time Franklin was working abroad it became questionable to whether or not Franklin would return to America or if he even had a desire to return. It seems as though Franklin, the quintessential American, would have a raging sense of nationalism for the nation in which he embodies, and in many ways he did, but he would still forever be attached emotionally to his first love, Britain. Franklin is a prominent symbol in and of American culture. His writings, especially the Autobiography and Poor Richards Almanac, reflect the characteristics that are esteemed above all for both Franklin and America; capitalism, democracy, and opportunity. Franklin prefers opportunity than security, and so when Britain takes away American opportunity he is left with no other option than to offend the country that he loves. Franklin cast his vote in support of the American Independence movement and cements his legacy as an American hero as a result of the unrelenting oppression of the British Parliament. Benjamin Franklin was many things in his life; writer, laborer, scientist, politician, diplomat, inventor, and philanthropist. Franklin is among the most accomplished people in all of history. Many of his efforts alone would be enough to make him famous but the collection of his lifes work makes him iconic. The interconnectivity of all his efforts always relates to the publick good. Franklin had the public on his mind at all times. Franklin endlessly worked to improve the lives of his fellow citizens. His writings spoke of virtue and productivity and how they are center pieces for a life and a country that prospers.iii Franklins public works such as the library, fire department, militia legislation, postmaster general were all for the good of the people. Franklin often had personal reasons for creating the institutions that he did. For instance fires at his printing press enraged him to the point he wanted to create a public fire department.iv Franklins commitment to improving society proves to be a struggle for him during the American Revolution. Franklin shows some obvious indecision over where his loyalties exist in the events
leading up to the revolution and some suggest they were never settled after American Independence was achieved. His struggle is often overshadowed and unrealized due to his overbearing symbolism of American value and virtue. The Albany Plan of Union is often pointed to as an early sign of the American Independence movement. In 1754, neither colonists nor Franklin had any desire to gain independence from Britain. The entire premise behind the Albany Plan of Union was not intended to make steps towards a revolution, but rather it was designed for the purpose of strengthening the British Empire. Benjamin Franklin has no desire to impede the powers of Britain or Parliament, but rather was attempting to create an extension of their powers. The design of a Ground Council was the culminating work of all Franklins efforts. He proudly presented the model of Union as one that provided a more efficient, regulated, and progressive continent. Franklins idea of Continental Union was not one separate from Britain, but rather a body that served the interests of the colonies while maintaining a working relationship with Parliament. Franklin believed a continental body would better serve the colonist than Parliament could so far away from colonial issuesv. This is what Franklin is all about; progress, efficiency, economic sustainability. Franklin was actually doing a service for Britain, which is one reason the plan fails.vi It is not that the representatives were opposed to the idea of a union; in fact there was nearly a consensus to adopt the plan. However, much of the concern was raised over the idea of American colonist asking of Britains involvement in colonial affairs. The colonist had grown accustomed to Britains unofficial policy of salutary neglect and was not fully ready to relinquish the benefits that it offered. The colonists were not interested in interfering with the business of trade that had been so profitable for them due to corruption and smuggling and a policy of looking the other way.
The largest issue in the minds of the delegates at the Albany congress was the impeding French into the Ohio River Valleyvii. Conflicts between a Virginia militia and French troops caused concern for colonial defenses against further aggressions. Franklins plan was also a response to these issues. The plan did not pass, as Franklin suspected it would not and if it did he believed it would fail. Franklin confided in Peter Collison that the states wanted a Union but when one was offered they were "too easily distracted" to allow a Union to existviii. Franklin proves to be an adept man in every venture he takes on. His public works continued throughout his life. His most high minded desire was to operate social affairs on an international level. This desire is why he leaves his printing press completely to pursue a career in politics. It opens up to him opportunities that he could not have as a printer. He had accomplished all there was in that world and needed more time to focus on other ventures. As historian Gordon Wood puts it, he reached a place where he no longer needed to worry of financial matters, so he leaves the world of industry to pursue a career as a genteel statesman. One of his proudest jobs was that of postmaster. The colonies had poor mail services. There was no good way to travel from place to place and the process was slow. Improving this public service was a two-fold motive for Franklin. It is obviously a help to society and the public but, if he could improve the mail service then he would benefit by being able to get his publications out to more places and at a faster rate. Franklin is appointed as Postmaster General for the entire English colonies. This appointment was one that he was very proud of however; it would later help make Franklin commit to America in the midst of the pre-cursers of the revolution. Franklin was happy and appreciative of his opportunity to move up the ranks in the colonial society. This is indicative of Franklins character. Franklin starts his career in the mail service in 1737 as he is appointed
Postmaster of Philadelphia. In 1753 he rises to a co-op position along with William Hunter to Deputy Postmaster and Manager of all His Majesty Provinces and Dominions, on the continent of North America.ix This appointment can be accounted to his advancements in the service. He visits all of the post stations in all thirteen colonies. He continues to improve the efficiency of the service by establishing major trade routes and shortening distances of other routes. He also increases the frequency in which the mail was delivered in America. Under the leadership of Franklin mail delivery goes from once a week in summer months to three times a week and from once a month in the months of winter to once a week. Franklin takes this position very seriously and holds postmasters to higher standards under his management.x This appointment made Franklin an employee of the Crown. He is paid a salary for his services and uses this opportunity to make connections with people overseas. In the years following the French and Indian War, conflict between the mother country and the colonist arises over Parliaments authority to tax the colonist. Franklin is commissioned to England by the colonist in 1757 through 1762. He is brought before the House of Commons and questioned over the reasons for unrest in the colonies. At this point in time Independence is not on the forefront but is beginning to enter into the minds of some radicals. However, Franklin suggests that the whole issue is that Parliament has overstepped its power in the mind of colonists. However, Franklin states, the peace could be restored if Parliament would limit the duties on colonist to external taxes. This issue, which is played out in the House of Commons, is specifically concerning the Stamp Act of 1765 but speaks to the general oppression of opportunity in the Colonies. Franklin makes the distinction clear. The taxes the colonist opposed were the ones that they had no say in the matter.xi He explains that the colonist did not object to the external taxes, or taxes on items. The colonist, Franklin included, did not like the taxes being
forced on them without any consent. As long as the colonist were allowed the opportunity to decline products that had taxes they were at ease, but when that privilege was taken away and colonist were forced to pay the taxes, then they had reason to complain. Franklin could sympathize with these sentiments because he did not approve of Parliaments actions either. Franklin's purpose in the House of Commons questioning was to make amends with Parliament. Franklin did not try to stir up any trouble but was stating as diplomatic as he could the mood prevailing in the colonies. However, the language in which he spoke speaks to the mentality of the colonist. When Franklin was asked specifics about what taxes would be accepted by the colonist, he replied that "they think you can have no right to lay [an excise tax] within their country."xii By Franklin's words the colonists already see themselves as a separate country. Each colony acts and believes in their own sovereignty. Benjamin Franklin understands this point very well; he also states that the colonial assemblies are willing to work with Parliament to amend the troubles they have had over the war debt. He is very firm throughout the questioning that the colonies will not give in to Parliament's oppression under any circumstances but is willing to work things out. The problems in America are not amended and do not subside. The longer the disputes last the more and more resentment towards Parliament and England grows. In the 1770's, aggressions mount. It was found that Franklin stumbled upon secret letters that incriminated public officials he sent them to colleague for safe keeping. Ben Franklin was dismissed from his position as Postmaster General as a result. He was charged with treason for sending the letters. A report on his trial from the Boston Gazette tells that the trial of Franklin was a conspiratous, treasonous, one in which the Doctor received a "shaft". The prosecutor attempted to damage the reputation of Franklin, but as the writer put it "[h]ow weak and ridiculous is this?.xiii Franklin
was doing his job with merit but as he writes to friend Tomas Cushing explaining what had happened he seems angry or perhaps upset by the way he has been treated throughout the matter. "I am at a loss" Franklin laments "to know how peace and union is to be maintained or restored between the different parts of the empire".xiv Franklin desires to have this peace restored because of his natural affection for English tradition and custom but is becoming a casualty of the conflict. As he informs his friends and family of his displacement he assures them not to worry about him. In writing to John Foxcroft, he states It seems I am too much of an American". xv Franklin is obviously exasperated by the accusations of his harmless behavior, however comes to embrace the role of an American. In a letter to his sister Jane his tone seems a little different, not as much sarcasm as with Foxcroft. He explains that he has been "done [an] Honour" and that he is now "too much attachd to the Interests of America". xvi Before his displacement Ben searched for peace and harmony between the two parties. He had not committed to either cause, but the unwarranted personal assault on his character places Franklin in a place where he is forever supportive of the American cause. In less than a two years Franklin will be a part of the committee of five that will draft the Declaration of Independence. Franklins decision to support independence causes him to break many friendships he had developed throughout his political years. Franklin befriends Joseph Galloway early in his political career. Their friendship is benevolent for both parties, but comes to an end during the revolution. Franklin and Galloway are such close friends that when he leaves America as an ambassador to France, he left his personal papers (including his autobiography) with Galloway.xvii In 1775, Franklin has long forgotten his Albany Plan of Union of 1755; however, Joseph Galloway submits a similar plan to Congress in 1775. Galloways Plan of Union nearly succeeds in Congress; however Franklin has changed his mind about the effectiveness of a
Union. Franklin, believing a Constitutional Union will at this point in time serve as the death of American liberties and further hinder American opportunity, argues to Galloway from his post in Britain that To unite us intimately, will only be to corrupt and poison us also. However I would try any thing, and bear any thing that can be borne with Safety to our just Liberties rather than engage in War with such near Relations, unless compelled by Necessity in our own Defence.xviii In 1775, Franklin is still opposed to total independence from Britain but within a year is ready to make that commitment. Franklin is unsure what resolution will come to the British and Colonial conflicts but is willing to do anything to avoid a war. He is still not ready in 1775 to declare independence, but realizes the friction between the two bodies makes a legislative union, like his Albany Plan and Galloways Plan, unlikely. Unlike Franklin, Galloway never reaches the point to where he can see independence as a positive. Galloway remains loyal to the crown until his death. A deepening chasm between Franklin and Galloway illustrates the transformation of Benjamin Franklin. Early in their political careers in Philadelphia they played off one another on nearly every item that came through the Pennsylvania Assembly. However, after 20 years of partnership, the two split over issues on the revolution. Galloway remains a loyalist throughout his life and can no longer find solace with a waffling Franklin.xix Galloway is representative of the loyalist attitude that believes colonists are better off with Britain despite some indiscretions on their part, than to revolt and be left alone without any allies in a growing international world. Franklin loves Britain, but unlike Galloway, is intolerant of the indiscretions of Britain that restrict the opportunities of Americans. Despite the objections of loyalist and others such as John Dickenson who remain patriots the continental congress creates the Declaration of Independence. A committee of five that included Franklin was designated to draft the document. The committee was headed by Thomas
Jefferson. Jefferson took the lead and penned the majority of the document himself. When finished Jefferson asked "Doctor Franklyn" to look over the document and make suggestions that would be included in the final draft that was to be presented to the congressxx. The letter was sent to Franklin on June 21 and two weeks later on July 4, 1776 Franklins' existence as a Britain was over. He was now an American; proud, uncertain of the future, but willing to work to ensure the prosperity of this new nation. Benjamin Franklin serves the newly formed United States of America as an ambassador to France. Franklins next years are put under scrutiny by his colleagues as well as some historians. John Adams is not impressed with Franklin's work as a diplomat. Adams is often quoted by historians and biographers by referring to Franklin as combining "practical cunning" and "theoretick Ignorance"xxi During the war Franklin lives in Passy while serving in the French court. During his time in France, Franklin begins to love the French culture and it was a mutual love. The French court swooned around Franklin plastering his picture all over the city. At times it became unclear whether or not Franklin would even return to America. He attempted to arrange a marriage for his grandson, and had the arrangements come to fruition Ben would have likely never returned indeed. John Adams and John Jay in particular, begin questioning the motives of Franklin in France. They were concerned over Franklins "adaptable, even devious" behavior in the French courts.xxii Jay and Adams perceive Franklin to be acting in the manner that best advanced his own ambitions and interests rather than those of America. Funds that were allocated to Franklin were unaccounted for on the papers. The absence of these funds leaves a smudge on the reputation of Franklin. It is unclear what Franklins real motivations were and how they played into his service in France. Claims that he was a peculator and a profiteer have never been fully
substantiated.xxiii Similar to his dismissal from his Post in Britain, this only makes Franklin more relatable. His faults and failures that humanize him is another way in which America emulates Franklin. Franklin seems as a though he was a man that was so genius, so powerful, so inventive, so accomplished, and so grand that he is a demigod. The fact that he has these faults allows us to realize that he was a man just the same as men today. Benjamin Franklin lived 70 years of his life as a British citizen. He has little regrets from those years. He was happy to work for the crown and serve his country in any way possible. Franklin spent the remaining 14 years of his life as an American citizen. Franklin was just as happy to be a part of this nation as he was Britain. Although the end of his career has been tainted by claims of corruption and deception, Franklin's legacy has stood the test of time and is unlikely to falter in the future. Despite the majority of his life as a Britain, he will always be an American.
Leonard Labree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 14 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p.62. In a letter to Lord Kames on February 25, 1767, Franklin argues his beliefs for the good of Pennsylvania.ii
Gordon Wood. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), p.11. In the opening chapter Wood gives a detailed explanation of why it was unlikely for Franklin to be a Patriot rather than a Loyalist. At his age and with his reputation Franklin had nothing to prove.iii
William Cairns, ed. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. (Chicago: Longman's, Green, and Co., 1905). Found on Google Books, this is the complete autobiography and also includes an introduction a chronological table and notes by the editor.iv
Walter Isakson. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon Schuster, 2003)
Leonard Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p.273. This is an article published by the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. The article had a layer of propaganda to it. The article explained some military conflicts in Virginia and then at the end had the famous Join or Die cartoon. The article is intended to imply that a Union of the colonies would be able to manage the conflicts in Virginia better than a separate government.vi
Leonard Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p.364. This is notes by Richard Peters on a debate at the Albany congress. The notes do not indicate who makes what point. However, the arguments center on the notion that Parliament should or should not enact the Plan of Union. The debate was held one day before the vote was held.vii
Leonard Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p.397. Here Franklin outlines his Reasons and Motives for the Albany Plan of Union. The 1st reason dealt with the common defense and how a Union could better handle disputes on boundary lines with France, Spain, and the Natives.viii
Leonard Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p.417. In a letter to Peter Collison, Franklin expresses his disappointment after the Albany council. The failure of the plan was expected, however he was still noticeably distraught with how the meetings unraveled.ix
Leonard Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p.18. This is an official document stating that Benjamin Franklin and William Hunter were to be appointed as co- Deputy Postmaster of the colonies in North America. Leonard Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol 5. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p. 161. Franklin, along with Hunter, establish a code of ethics for postmasters. The list included a oath of office and an outline on the importance of delivering the mail.xi x
Leonard Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 13 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), p.139. This is a long questioning session that Franklin endures. He is there to talk about the Stamp Act. It is several pages long. Parliament is inquiring of any way possible that the Stamp tax would be accepted in America.xii
William Wilcox, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 21 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p.78. April 25, 1774 the Boston Gazette published an article explaining the problems in England in which Dr. Franklin had come in to. He was dismissed of his Deputy Postmaster position in a humiliating fashion. The author of the article reports of the how ungentlemanly the trial had been.xiv
William Wilcox, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 21 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p.86. Franklin writes on February 15-[19?], 1774 and explains the history of the events that have cost him his position of Deputy Postmaster to Thomas Cushing. It is a long detailed letter that has a grievous tone.
William Wilcox, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 21(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 106. John Foxcroft is a New Jersey loyalist. He is the postmaster for the colonies there and maintains a steady correspondence with Franklin. The letters cease after 1775, due to political views.xvi
William Wilcox, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 21 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 103. Franklin explains to his sister, Jane Mecom, he will be returning as a result of his displacement from office. His attitude is far different when speaking with his sister than it is with his colleagues. It is in this letter that Franklin sees an upside to his dismissal. He is beginning to envision himself playing in a new role.xvii
William Wilcox, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 21 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p.508. Benjamin Franklin writes on Feburary 25, 1775, a letter to Joseph Galloway concerning Galloways Plan of Union. Franklin outlines his reasoning to Galloway for why he no longer believes that A Union of the Colonies and of Britain will workxix
Newcomb, Benjamin, Franklin and Galloway: A Political Partnership. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972). Necombe explores the political careers of both Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway. He begins with their first meeting of one another and tells their individual stories as time and events progress. Newcombe is an excellent source for both British loyalties and the political career of Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway.
William Wilcox, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 22 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 485. Thomas Jefferson writes to Franklinin a letter. The letter is short and brief, Jefferson simply asks Franklin to review the draft of the Declaration of Independence. He also instructs Franklin on how to make additions or subtractions from the document. Wood. The Americanization of Ben Franklin p. 2. Gordon Wood just makes a quick mention of the insult, and implies the remarks are not reliable because Adams is Franklin's political enemy. The insult is also used by Cecil Currey in his book Code Number 72 Ben Franklin: Patriot or Spy?. Currey devotes an entire chapter to the disagreements between Franklin and Adams. Richard Morris. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence. (New York: 1965) p 192. Morris focuses on the peacemakers John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin. He evaluates how they play a part in the American Revolution and how their actions fit into the bigger story.xxiii xxii xxi
Cecil Currey. Code Number 72 Ben Franklin: Patriot or Spy? (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972) Currey is attempting to make the case that Benjamin Franklin is not the man he seems. He argues that Franklin was still jockeying for Britain and only masked as a patriot. He looks at Franklins years in France to make his claims.